Anti-fascism after Oldham
The performance of the British National Party in the general election has provoked a good deal of comment both in the press of our Socialist Alliance allies and in the mainstream media. It has posed the question of which way committed anti-fascists should proceed.
The BNP contested two seats in Oldham and its chairman, Nick Griffin, gained over 16% of the vote in Oldham West and Royton. Phil Woolas, the Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth (where the BNP scored over 11% of the vote), commented: ?Too many white people, most commonly the least well off, define their circumstances in purely racial terms? (?Beating the BNP? The Guardian June 15). Woolas added that this is partially ?because the muslim community has not integrated at a pace which the white population (and many within the Asian population) find acceptable?.
Woolas then went on to expose the potentially authoritarian nature of bourgeois anti-racism when he called, without elaboration, for consideration of a ?coercing integration forced on an unwilling public?. He means the integration of different cultures into one single British culture, forced from above.
One of the handicaps suffered by the left is that it often accepts the anti-racist project of the liberal bourgeoisie at face value and thus defends it. Any comment celebrating British culture for its diversity is seen as automatically progressive; a rejection of this agenda makes you a Tory or worse. Bourgeois anti-racism is not seen for what it actually is: an attempt to bind white and Asian workers to the British state, which is promoted using the language of diversity and tolerance. When Robin Cook made his ?chicken tikka masala? speech, welcomed by Socialist Worker, his first words were: ?Tonight I want to celebrate Britishness.?
The election campaign saw Tony Blair emphasise that he believed being European was part of being British. Thus moves towards ?pooled sovereignty? within the European Union, to use an expression much loved by the Liberal Democrats, are taken draped in the union flag. Cook and Blair - and Griffin too - aim to stake a claim to the true voice of ?Britishness?. Cook?s ?hypocrisy? over issues like asylum-seekers are criticised by Socialist Worker. But his attacks on ?outsiders? are part and parcel of this same British chauvinist ideology: an ideology which embraces multiculturalism in order to forge a new, post-empire, British identity in defence of the British state. The results secured by the BNP - which, along with the low turnout, show a definite alienation from the Blair project - are best understood as a reaction to this redefined ideology.
This confusion over official ideology is also reflected in calls on the state to take action against groups like the BNP. For example, the Communication Workers Union passed a motion at its recent conference calling for the ?TUC to lobby the incoming government towards banning these racist, violent political parties from participating in the democratic process?. Given the track record of much of the left, we can expect considerable support for this move. It should, however, be opposed.
With a section of society alienated from ?respectable? politics (in part demonstrated by the low general election turnout), singling out the BNP can only increase its appeal and add to its ?radical? credentials. The ban on speeches by candidates after the count in Oldham is instructive as an illustration of this point. This extraordinary measure was implemented allegedly to prevent ?disorder?, but was clearly aimed at the BNP. Its members showed how this could be exploited by appearing on the platform before TV cameras with their mouths covered and wearing t-shirts proclaiming, ?Gagged for telling the truth?.
The ruling class nowadays obviously feels so outraged by the ?anti-Britishness? of racism that it bans its propagation. Needless to say, it would not hesitate to employ such methods against the working class, if it considered that left ideas were ?too dangerous? at a given moment. We, on the contrary, ought to have the utmost confidence in the truth and power of socialism. What is more, in order to defeat reactionary ideas we need them out in the open, where they can be exposed.
That is why we do not go along either with a blanket ?no platform? policy against racist or fascist groups and individuals. There is no principle involved here. We must employ whatever tactics are necessary to defeat these dehumanised scum - including engaging them in debate. If, for instance, the right gained a foothold in the union movement and succeeded in winning positions in some branches, it would be foolish in the extreme to walk out of union meetings or attempt to disrupt them.
When it became clear that the BNP chairman intended to stand in Oldham, a debate was opened up within the Greater Manchester Socialist Alliance about the feasibility of standing a candidate. The main criteria laid by the GMSA for standing in seats were almost entirely resource-based. An insistence that over 30 must be present at candidate selection meetings is strong evidence of a purely logistical approach to what are important political questions.
This conservatism was first seen early in the planning stage of the SA election campaign, when some comrades proposed limiting our intervention to around 20 constituencies. In actual fact we ended up contesting enough seats to qualify for a television broadcast - something that was barely considered initially. This showed that, as enthusiasm developed on the ground, activists became bolder and more ambitious. Thus, from the point of view that comrades in Oldham had expressed a desire to stand, it is disappointing that they were prevented from doing so.
We in the CPGB do not believe that the left should go chasing after tiny bands of fascists and automatically stand in seats where the BNP or National Front have declared they will contest. That would be to allow such grouplets to set our agenda. But the events in Oldham required a working class response, and there would have been no better way of presenting our alternative than by standing a Socialist Alliance candidate.
Whether an alliance intervention would have significantly dented the BNP vote is another matter. In six seats where there was a direct contest the SA polled a lower vote than the BNP. But that is not the point - we need first and foremost to put forward a positive alternative, not simply urge workers, ?Don?t vote Nazi?. In that way we will be able to begin to eat into the vote of the mainstream parties - particularly Labour and the Greens - and in the long term help undermine the extreme right.
By and large though the BNP?s constituency is made up of highly disorientated sections on the fringes of society, who are unlikely to look to collective, working class solutions. It is clear from its post-election statement that the BNP itself regarded the UK Independence Party as its main competitor in the election, and it seems likely that support was also forthcoming from disenchanted middle class elements.
Most first-time BNP voters were reluctant to admit to the press that they had backed the group. Those that did usually insisted they were not racist. As last week?s Socialist Worker indicated, many may not have been aware of what policies they were voting for, thus using the BNP merely to register a protest vote (June 16). The paper also referred to ?a small hardcore of racists? - a supposition that may be accurate. However, the BNP was able to build on a number of prejudices: for example, the common notion that the Asian community is ?privileged?.
Where does this originate? Surely in the divisive, nationalistic, top-down anti-racism (a world away from our working class, internationalist anti-racism) around which there is a wide consensus. The race relations industry artificially pigeon-holes whole sections of the population according to ethnicity. White or black, Chinese or Greek, muslim or Irish, Bengali or Kurd, we are meant to act as rival supplicants for the ?fair? distribution of scarce resources according to ?ethnicity? or ?race?.
The unexpected consequence of these elitist anti-racist policies which actually racialise people was the BNP vote - not least in Oldham. In a period following on the heels of significant working class defeats notions of class-based collective action have lost ground to notions of race protest. It was this that the BNP articulated on June 7.
It is obvious then that the Socialist Alliance cannot quickly win over large chunks of BNP support to itself. In general we garnered votes from the most conscious among the ranks of the working class. So it is improbable that we could have stood in Oldham and reaped the reward of instant success - either in terms of substantially reducing the BNP vote or attracting support over and above that achieved elsewhere. However, a useful marker would have been laid down and a base of local activists cohered.
A widespread view on the left is that in order to combat the extreme right we must immediately ?sink roots? and engage in ?community work? as an urgent priority. This is to view the problem in a distorted way. Our first task is to create a pole of attraction around which we base anti-fascist and all other work. As the alliance hopefully develops in a partyist direction, it can provide such a pole. That means drawing up a programme which links up ?community work?, along with all our struggles, to a generalised perspective.
The advanced section of the working class organised in a party best provides the sort of organisational and programmatic flexibility we need. Anti-fascist work will exist on a qualitatively higher level. Such a party would aim to win to itself the best elements of our class - elements that are not in the slightest attracted to groups like the BNP. But the influence of such a party would eventually extend to those elements who either abstained or cast a racialised protest vote this time around.
Anti-fascist work should be seen less in terms of organising specifically against the BNP than building our working class movement in the struggle for its own interests. Commenting on the Oldham result, Anti-Fascist Action recognised that a point can be reached when it is ?possibly counterproductive? to rely upon a ?purely anti-fascist stance? (AFA News June 11). As it correctly stated, ?People look to politics for solutions.?
Only a party armed with a programme which links immediate struggles to a vision of an alternative society will provide a sound organisational basis upon which the working class can unite and begin to provide those solutions.